Just as a reminder that Spare Parts is now available as an eBook here's an interview with me and 2000AD scribe Alec Worley from when the original paperback version came out.
ALEC WORLEY: Are there any background details about yourself that you want to fill the readers in on?
STUART YOUNG: You mean apart from the fact that I’m incredibly witty and handsome? Oh -- you only want honest answers. Fair enough.
I’ve had over fifty stories published in various books and magazines including Roadworks, Darkness Rising, Kimota, and Nasty Piece of Work. My monthly comics column, Words and Pictures, runs at www.thealienonline.net I work in a mental health community home. And I live in Essex which is the finest county in the whole of England. Oh yeah, honest answers only. Sorry.
AW: You had a story published in The Mammoth Book of Future Cops. How did it feel to appear in a mass market paperback?
SY: I was convinced the whole thing was a huge mistake, that I’d somehow been sent someone else’s acceptance letter. Took seeing the book in Borders and Waterstones to convince me otherwise. But somehow what gave me the biggest buzz was when I unexpectedly stumbled across a copy whilst browsing in my local library. Total shock. But in a good way.
AW: How did your collection of horror stories, Spare Parts, come about?
SY: That was all part of a carefully orchestrated pitching campaign. Basically I waited until John B. Ford was drunk and then said, “I’ve got some stories to show you.” By the time he’d sobered up it was too late, he’d already accepted them.
Rainfall Books didn’t have any submission guidelines so I ended up giving him far too many stories and he whittled it down to his favourites. These turned out to be all the stories centring around death and doomed love. This despite the fact that John has always struck me as a very cheery person whenever I’ve met him. Just goes to show what a two-faced, duplicitous wretch he really is.
Um, John isn’t going to get to read this is he?
AW: You have an eBook of fantasy stories coming out in 2004 called Shards of Dreams. Why did you choose to branch out into fantasy instead of doing more horror?
SY: Well, when I saw that Double Dragon published both fantasy and horror I was spoilt for choice because I had enough stories to fill a collection in either genre. But as people aren’t that aware of my fantasy stuff and Spare Parts was already full of horror stories I thought it would be nice to showcase my fantasy work.
Besides, some of the stories in Shards of Dreams are quite dark. People getting broken, physically and mentally. Although others are comedies. It’s a bit of a mix.
AW: Does working at a mental home help in writing tales of horror and madness?
SY: Not too often. I don’t base stories on things in the clients’ casenotes or anything. Partly out of client confidentiality, partly because it’s not as though I work in a challenging behaviour unit where the staff constantly deal with knife-wielding psychopaths and the like. The home where I work is very settled and the clients are really nice people.
AW: So what sort of research do you do then?
SY: It depends. Sometimes I fake it, just blag my way through a story. Other times I force myself to actually do a bit of work. For example, the stories in Spare Parts all had varying degrees of research to them.
‘Face at the Window’ started off as a 500 word writing exercise so initially I didn’t bother doing any research into Alzheimer’s but once it morphed into something that might be worth submitting I got a book out of my local library and jotted down some notes just to make it sound like I knew what I was talking about.
With ‘Swamp ‘Gator Blues’ I was kind of stuck for research. This was in the mid-90s, before I got the Internet, so I had real trouble finding stuff that could help me out. The original inspiration was Southern Comfort but that was set in the 70s and I needed something more contemporary. So I read possibly the most boring travel book ever written so I could glean all the information it had on Louisiana. And I read novels by James Lee Burke and Daniel Woodrell because they had bayou settings and Cajun heroes. I even watched Jean Claude Van Damme’s Hard Target for the bayou scenes. *shudders at the memory* Now THAT’s devotion above and beyond the call of duty.
Other times the research is already done and I’m just waiting for a story to use it in. With ‘Spirits of and Darkness and Light’ I already knew a fair bit about WWI fighter pilots because I used to be a big Biggles fan. I also liked the Martin Falconer books by John Harris. (The story actually contains a few nods to both these series.) Consequently as a kid I read up quite a bit on fighter pilots, mainly from WWI and WWII, so years later when I wrote this story I only needed to check the odd fact here and there.
‘Spare Parts’ was inspired by an experiment I read about in New Scientist. The trick with the table is genuine although obviously I play around with the possibilities for the sake of the story.
‘Boxes’ came about from a combination of my childhood obsession with Sherlock Holmes stories and my more recent interest in the workings of the human mind; in this case memory and perception. Books like Rita Carter’s Mapping the Mind were a great help.
‘Midnight in a Perfect World’ probably looks like the story with the least research in the collection but the concept only occurred to me after I went through a phase of reading popular science books, trying to learn about quantum physics and the structure of Time. But it comes across more as inspiration than research -- I don’t actually talk about superpositions and overlapping timelines. I just use metaphors for them within the story.
AW: Do you have a particular method you follow when you write?
SY: I sacrifice a small child to the gods of the creative muse. Usually works out at three stories per sacrifice.
No, normally I try to get the writing done either as soon as I get up or as soon as I get back from work depending on what shift I’m working. My notes are normally written up in the form of a mindmap with a beat by beat plot outline on the back of the sheet. But sometimes I just improvise, depending on what mood I’m in. Most of my writing is done at my computer, which I know you find totally freakish, but I normally only write longhand if the PC is busted or my eyes are tired from staring at the screen for too long.
I tend to procrastinate like crazy when I’m supposed to write. Suddenly I want to read my email, my snail mail, my story notes, the labels on tin cans; anything I can think of to stop myself writing. But usually I’m okay once I convince myself to actually sit down and start writing.
But I keep a small child on standby just in case.
AW: Do you have a specific aim in mind when you sit down to write a story?
SY: As far as I’m concerned the most important thing is to entertain the reader. If they’re not enjoying the story then why the hell should they read it? But there’s different ways of entertaining people. Some people like to laugh, some people like to cry, some people like to be frightened. So I try to cover different things -- comedy, tragedy, romance, adventure, horror etc -- in different stories. And I’m always pleased when I can mix a few of these different approaches into the same story. It gives the tale that little bit of texture, something for the reader to chew on. After all, life isn’t stuck in only one emotional state so I don’t see why stories should be.
And if I can write something that makes the reader think then that’s an added bonus.
AW: Are there any major Influences on your writing style?
SY: I’m always discovering new influences or rediscovering old ones. For instance I recently started reading John Connolly’s novels and I think they’re great. They’ve helped crystallise my thinking in terms of some the stuff I was already doing in my writing whilst simultaneously giving me ideas about new things to try.
Other prose influences include James Ellroy, Joe R. Lansdale, Greg Egan, Douglas Adams, Stephen Hunter, Alfred Bester, Andrew Vachss, Robert Bloch, and Michael Moorcock. Basically writers who can keep a story moving with clear, uncluttered prose. And who have either a sense of humour or a gripping story to tell. Preferably both.
I’ve learnt a lot from various comic book authors especially people like Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller, Garth Ennis, Chris Claremont, Warren Ellis, Grant Morrison, and Brian Michael Bendis. And then there’s Alan Moore who’s such a complex writer; I’ve been reading his stuff since I was 15 but it’s only in the last few years that I’ve figured out how to apply his techniques to my own writing. I had to read a lot of stuff by Gaiman and Morrison, who were both heavily influenced by Moore, and pick out various tricks that they employed and then use that as a bridge to help me understand the mechanics of Moore’s writing.
In films you’ve got Die Hard, El Dorado, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Terminator 1 and 2, Aliens, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Films are a little like comics in that I can quite happily rewatch the story several times. I’ll pick up stuff about dialogue and plot structure just by osmosis. And then when I actually start paying attention it’s, “Wow! So that’s how the writer gets that effect at that point in the story!” One of the best films I know for learning story structure is A Bug’s Life, the plot unfolds with clockwork precision. Plus it’s laugh out loud funny. There’s probably loads more, Hitchcock for a start, but like I say a lot of it comes through by osmosis so it doesn’t always register on a conscious level.
Then from TV Only Fools and Horses and Porridge. They know how to juxtapose humour and poignancy brilliantly, luring you into a sad story and then hitting you with a gag that makes you split your sides. Or they do the reverse, firing off jokes in all directions and then suddenly poleaxing you with something so sad that you can’t help but get a lump in your throat. As for Buffy, Angel, and Smallville -- I know some people hate these sort of programmes but I love ‘em. And The Simpsons and Futurama have a wonderful madcap energy, there’s always something happening -- I’ve tried to recreate that effect in some of my more humorous stories but I’m not in the same league.
AW: You’ve been praised for your realistic characterisation. Would you say that is the most important aspect of your stories?
SY: I don’t know if it’s the most important aspect but it’s definitely high up on the list. If the reader’s going to spend the entire story reading about a character then they need something about that character with which they can sympathise, or at least empathise. But ideally plot and dialogue should be just as strong as characterisation. Each element affects the others e.g. if you decide the protagonist of a story is incredibly brave then the plot and dialogue are probably going to be vastly different than if they’re a total coward.
AW: You play around with typography and fonts in some of your stories. What inspired this particular trait?
SY: Um, I can point towards certain influences but I’m a little hazy on exactly when I came across them, or in what order. Some of it came from -- I don’t know if this is the correct term -- shape poems. You know, where the words are laid out across the page to take on the shape of the subject of the poem.
But a lot of it came from comic book style lettering where sound effects are drawn in such a way to suggest volume and movement. For example the sound effect for a car might be VRROOMMM to suggest speed, acceleration, volume, and the direction the car is travelling in. Or different characters might have different fonts for their dialogue to suggest varying tones or accents.
Also, Michael Moorcock and Alfred Bester used various typographical effects. And the effect I use in ‘Boxes’ is an idea that I nicked from a Nicholas Royle story, although the way it works within the context of his story and mine is totally different.
I’m trying not to overuse the typography. It’s always tempting to show off with it, do it just for the sake of it. But I don’t want to be known as “that writer who always uses the funny fonts.”
AW: I know you’re a big comics fan and have written some strips yourself. Could you tell us a little about them?
SY: I did a couple of strips with Bob Covington who won the British Fantasy Society Award for Best Artist in 1999. I always get really jealous when I look at Bob’s art because he draws so well but I can’t draw at all. Those strips both appeared in Legend.
I’ve written some gag strips for Dave Bezzina but we haven’t decided who to pitch them to yet. Again, Dave is a superb artist. He and Bob both did a great job of illustrating Spare Parts.
I’ve done various strips for SF Revolution Comics. With those I usually try to vary the genres. A WWI ghost story, a piece of cyber-erotica, a 2000AD-ish black comedy, some reality-warping SF/Horror. I also wrote an apocalyptic comedy-drama called ‘Dead Light’ for Fusion from Engine Comics. And I’ve written a two issue Samurai fantasy story called Seppuku also from Engine Comics.
AW: What projects are you currently working on?
I’ve just finished a novella. It probably falls under the heading of religious/philosophical horror but don’t let that put you off, it’s a really fun read, honest! There’s a how-to-write-comics book that I was invited to write a tiny section of, basically just a very brief summary of my experiences writing comics. The book hasn’t been finalised yet though so I don’t know when it’s out or even what it’ll be called. And I’m catching up with my comics column and reviews and interviews and stuff. After that, I don’t know, maybe another novella or even a novel.
AW: Any last thoughts you want to leave us with?
SY: BUY MY BOOKS! No, I should probably say something profound and uplifting. Um ... ah, sod it. BUY MY BOOKS!